Folks who had given up on going to art shows a decade or so ago re-emerged February 6 at Oakstop, a co-working space and art gallery in Uptown Oakland. Event-goers rekindled relationships with old friends and filled the gallery with chatter, as they looked in awe at the displayed works by influential Black artists. The evening marked the official opening of Black Artists on Art: The Legacy Exhibit, and for appreciators of art by African-American artists, it was a special — and long overdue — occasion. Works of art by seminal contributors to the Black Arts Movement — including Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White — that would normally only be found in museum exhibitions were shown alongside Black artists emerging from Oakland today. Nearly one hundred pieces of work adorned the walls of Oakstop, with the exhibit bursting out of the assigned gallery space and into nearby conference rooms.
Although the event honored and celebrated Black artists from throughout Oakland and beyond, it focused largely on Samella Lewis, the revered artist, scholar, and collector of African-American art. At 91 years old, Lewis is a living legend of African-American art history, and in many ways, it is she who made the entire night possible.
In 1969, Lewis and Ruth G. Waddy published the book Black Artists on Art, and followed up with a second volume in 1971. The premise of the books was relatively straightforward, yet revolutionary: an anthology of profiles of contemporary Black artists — many of whom were not well known — that were written by the artists themselves. It was the first catalog of working Black artists in America in which the subjects spoke honestly about their work — be it race-related, revolutionary, or simply an aesthetic exploration — and reflected on art practice in general from the perspective of being African American. Although the books ultimately became crucial historical texts on African-American-made art, they were under-appreciated by the mainstream art world. The series never continued beyond the second volume. Lewis, who lives in Los Angeles, later founded Black Art: An International Quarterly (now the International Review of African American Art), which still publishes today.
Recently, Samella Lewis’ grandson, Unity Lewis, teamed up with Oakstop founder Trevor Parham to republish the original two volumes of Black Artists on Art, and to begin producing new ones, which will be designed by local artists Abba Yahuda and Mike “Buggsy” Malone. Their goal is to gather images and information from five hundred practicing Black artists and include that content in forthcoming volumes, the first of which will be published at the beginning of next year. They have collected content from about one hundred artists so far. In the meantime, Lewis and Parham are organizing shows with some of the artists already on board, alongside some works from the artists in the first two volumes. Most of that art has come from Samella Lewis’ personal collection. Eventually, every artist profile published in the forthcoming volumes, and more, will also be available online in a searchable catalog. The goal of the project is to honor the legacy of Black artists in America, while also leveraging the fame of established artists to garner better recognition for those less well known.
That increased visibility is coming at a critical moment for Oakland artists— a moment in which rising rent prices and the forces of gentrification are making it increasingly difficult to maintain financially sustainable art spaces. It’s also a moment in which channels for artistic representation are becoming flooded with new faces while venues for Black artists are at increased risk of being displaced.
During the past decade, much of the national attention on Oakland’s creative culture has focused on Art Murmur, which began in 2006 to help promote Oakland’s art galleries by hosting First Fridays art walks in which members of the collective host concurrent openings. By 2012, the monthly event grew into a full-blown block party centered in Uptown. But of the 45 galleries that take part in Art Murmur, only four are Black-owned, and only three (including Oakstop) are within the vicinity of the First Friday happenings.
Those numbers matter because outside of those four galleries, solo shows featuring Black artists are a rare sight these days in Oakland. For a number of reasons, many local Black artists feel their art is only welcomed and honored in Black-owned galleries.
Over the years, some Oakland curators and artists have worked to carve out space for local Black artists and artists of color. But as the Oakland art scene becomes increasingly crowded, some members of the Black artists community feel that it’s crucial to call attention to their work if they’re going to avoid getting pushed out.
“We feel that art, and sort of mobilizing around art, is one of the best ways to keep that community here and relevant and present and thriving, as well as making sure that they can grow along with the new growth that’s coming in,” Parham said in an interview.
The Black Artists on Art project, as a result, is not only designed to increase the visibility of work by Black artists, but also provide a sense of security in the face of threatening change.
In the introduction to the first volume of Black Artists on Art, Samella Lewis discredits the suffocating homogeneity of the “mainstream” art world — a world that historically has excluded Black artists from the dominant canon of fine art. She begins by declaring that the book will not employ a historical perspective, because art shouldn’t need historical justification to be seen as legitimate. She goes on to identify a bias toward “European style aesthetics” in America, then adamantly rejects that bias, writing that it “may be regarded more as ancestor worship rather than a valid system of aesthetics.” She argues that art should cumulatively reflect the variety of differences present in a society, as well as the commonalities. But she also argues that because whites control the economy, they also dictate aesthetic standards and are able to deem other cultural orientations as “‘primitive,’ quaint or suspect.” It is only by breaking free of that system of standards that art may begin to function outside of a “closed society,” she writes. In short, “Black Artists on Art is a book to promote change — change in order that art might function as an expression rather than as an institution.”
Samella Lewis’ biography is impressive by any standard. She was the first Black woman to receive a PhD in both art history and fine art in the United States. She has four academic degrees overall, has written eleven books, and her art work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She taught at a number of universities throughout her career, and in 1976 she also founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. In 1978, she wrote the first textbook on African-American art, called African American Art and Artists. She was a student of the Black artistic icon and activist Elizabeth Catlett, as well as a close friend. Those who knew her in her younger years describe Lewis an absolute pleasure to be around — and a formidable woman who knew what she wanted to achieve with her work.
The purpose of publishing Black Artists on Art was, in a sense, a response to an issue that seemed to drive most of her career. “Number one, we had no representation,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles (she was unable to attend the February 6 opening at Oakstop). Despite the fact that she and Waddy had a difficult time gathering enough funding for their first book, they were determined to publish it. Even though Lewis worked for the National Endowment of the Arts for fifteen years, the organization offered no funding for their project. “We just struggled and said, ‘We’re gonna do it,'” said Lewis. Ultimately, Lewis founded the publishing house Contemporary Crafts, which published both of her and Waddy’s books.
Forty-six years later, it’s clear that their perseverance has paid off many times over: Black Artists on Art has inspired untold numbers of Black artists throughout the country. Among them was Duane Deterville, who first encountered the books in 1979 in the library at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in Oakland when he was a student. Although the books were ten years old when Deterville first discovered them, they were the only ones available at the time on contemporary Black artists. The books were a source of inspiration and recognition in an environment in which Deterville and his peers didn’t see any work by Black artists reflected in their studies. “It gave us hope,” Deterville said in a recent interview.
Deterville described his time as an undergrad at CCAC as a “fight,” because he was consistently being taught in class that the only version of art history was the history of white male aesthetics. “The traumatizing thing was having all this history spun out before you as if other aesthetics and other worlds of creativity didn’t exist at the time,” he said. Deterville noted that, in contrast, the vibrant art scene in Oakland during those years was full of Black painters, poets, and dancers. The inconsistency was jarring. “Those types of things really got underneath our skin,” he said.
Ultimately, though, the experience proved to be motivational. Now, Deterville, who still lives in Oakland, is a respected artist, writer, and scholar who in 2007 co-authored the book Black Artists in Oakland, which employed photography to bring recognition to underappreciated artists, musicians, and dancers from throughout the city’s history. He is also a participating artist in the revival of Black Artists on Art, adding him to the list of Oakland artists that he once worshipped from inside the CCAC library.
Samella Lewis’ work, however, might have had its strongest and most lasting impact on her grandson, Unity Lewis. Today, he not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of her accomplishments, but much of his work also relies on the same principles that she preached, including the importance of taking the initiative to write the history that you want to see remembered. “We have to be excited about preserving our cultural heritage, otherwise it will die out,” he said in an interview. “And we can’t expect anybody to keep track of it except us. We have to be the authors and the organizers and the archivists, because a lot of people out there in power would like to see it die off so that they can claim it for themselves. People have strategically erased whole sections out of history about our culture — about Black culture in particular.”
In 2004, while he was still an undergraduate at California College of the Arts in Oakland, Unity Lewis did a performance piece called “Wild California Negro.” It was a re-staging of The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, the famous piece that performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco displayed during a world tour that lasted for two years beginning in 1992. The Hispanic pair pretended to be two recently discovered “natives” found on a fictional island off the coast of Mexico, wearing costumes that included a grass skirt and a lucha libre mask, fooling crowds at museums and art fairs from inside of a zoo-like cage.
Lewis’ take involved him standing behind a pane of glass, effectively enclosed in a box, surrounded by a pastiche of props that alluded to stereotypes of African Americans. “I had my Dave Chapelle playing and black velvet paintings,” he recalled. One of his white friends played the “zoo keeper” and gave him the “brotha” handshake as he brought the class around to view the specimen, who was dressed like a Black Panther.
When listening to Lewis reflect on his time spent at CCA, it begins to make sense that he would put together such a piece. He said he came to the Bay Area from the most culturally diverse high school in Los Angeles — Fairfax High — and that it was a “culture shock” for everyone involved. At CCA, he was often the only Black student in his classes. He said there were a few teachers that he gelled with really well, but otherwise he felt ostracized, tokenized, and boxed in at the same time. He said he was told by a white professor that he should make his work more “Black,” while a famous Black professor told him he should tone down the “Black shit.” Like many Black artists, he struggled to define himself, wavering between wanting to pay homage to the Black arts legacy that he was born into and not wanting to be limited by the idea of being another incarnation of the “Black aesthetic.”
Luckily, Lewis thrives on adversity. In 2000, he co-founded the first Black Student Union at CCA since the 1970s. Through his role as a community student fellow, he also designed a syllabus for and taught a class on hip-hop with graduate student Bayete Ross Smith at Far West High School in Oakland. And in his senior year, Lewis had shows in both the San Francisco and Oakland CCA galleries at the same time (a very rare occurrence), covering the walls with the lyrics from his most recent hip-hop album in one show, and presenting sculptural interrogations of racial identity in the other. The list of accomplishments continues.
Growing up in a revolutionary household, Lewis began organizing youth against gang violence when he was in high school. At that time, he also started rapping about Black power and political issues. And throughout his life, he has disseminated positive messages about Black culture through whatever means feel relevant to him. Along the way, he met Parham — who has a similarly long and impressive list of accomplishments — and the two began working on rap music videos. In 2008, they made one that promoted Obama’s presidential campaign, and even traveled to his inauguration, handing out fake $25 bills with Obama’s face printed on them, asking people in the crowd if they could “make change.”
But the two agree that Black Artists on Art is their most serious project so far. In a sense, it’s what they’ve been building toward their whole lives. “It’s almost like we were destined to be doing this,” said Lewis. “We were given the tools and the resources to fulfill this specific mission that has already been paved before I even came to this planet.”
Still, it wasn’t until they started the project that they realized the impact it could have. They found that the same issues of underrepresentation that the original books addressed are still highly relevant in Oakland today.
Once word about the project leaked out into the community, Black artists of all ages began showing up at Oakstop with portfolios in hand. “At least five new artists a week show up,” said Parham during an interview at the end of March. Lewis and Parham decided that as long as the artists took their work seriously, and presented something of quality, they would welcome them into the show. So the roster quickly grew from the original 38 artists to 56 in all. According to Lewis and Parham, many of the artists said that they had struggled to get their work into other galleries — for many of the same reasons that Samella Lewis described 46 years earlier in her introduction to Black Artists on Art.
Lewis and Parham say that many curators assume that Black artists only make work about race and thus are not marketable, or they subconsciously view Black artwork as being inferior. In addition, many galleries maintain a strict standard for credentials before considering an artist’s work. In a recent interview, local Black painter and illustrator Aambr Newsome joked that she has thought about asking a white person to take her portfolio into a gallery for her to see if the reception would be different. Painter Abba Yahuda, whose work reflects his Rastafarian beliefs, said that he doesn’t even try to reach out to galleries anymore, because it’s discouraging and he’s not willing to compromise his subject matter.
However, it can be difficult to clearly identify whether rejections of Black artists by non-Black galleries and curators are racially motivated, because when they turn away Black artists, they often give innocuous sounding reasons — that their waiting list is already too long, for example, or that the work does not “fit” into their vision. As a result, many Black artists simply stop trying.
“It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is,” said Parham. “You go somewhere and you see somebody that looks like you, the chances that you’re going to talk about something that caters to your interests are just much higher.”
The problem is, there are few Black-owned galleries in Oakland. Art Murmur’s Black-owned spaces include Betti Ono, Joyce Gordon Gallery, Thelma Harris Gallery, and Oakstop. Outside of Art Murmur, other primary venues for representing people of color are Omiiroo, Soulspace, and Eastside Arts Alliance. But that’s a small percentage of the one hundred or so galleries in Oakland.
Local creator Sasha Kelley wanted a platform to promote artistic women of color so she started the Malidoma Collective with Charmaine Davis (aka the rapper Queens D.Lite) in 2011. The group of twelve women includes artists, musicians, healers, and educators (one of whom is Aamber Newsom). Currently, they’re doing a residency at Omiiroo Gallery at 15th and Harrison streets in downtown Oakland and have created a store in the gallery called Shop Maater. The space is exquisitely decorated, and offers handmade wares by artists in the collective. There’s a box of toys for children, and a bookcase stocked with some literary essentials — including Richard Wright’s Native Son, Octavia Butler’s Fledging, and a collection of essays by James Baldwin. Kelley’s one-year-old daughter spends her days in the shop, too. Creative women fly in and out all day — the store acts as their home base of sorts. It’s important for them to have a place to work and be centered, especially at a time when space is at such a high premium in the Bay Area.
Kelley is a photographer whose work reflects contemporary life as an African American. Until a few years ago, she was determined to only show in spaces owned or run by African Americans. “I wanted to keep my work in spaces that were accessible, and where folks felt comfortable to come,” she said.
She didn’t open up to the idea of working with a white curator until an elder in her community — artist Karen Seneferu (who is featured in the Black Artists on Art exhibit) — told her that she could trust Jasmine Moorhead, the director of Krowswork Gallery. For many local Black artists, Krowswork is the exception to the assumption that work by Black artists won’t be appreciated in Art Murmur galleries. That’s because Moorhead has made a conscious effort to shift her curatorial practice away from what she sees as the prescribed taste of mainstream galleries, and now offers space to artists whose work reflects relevant social issues. Many of those artists, it turns out, are people of color.
But Moorhead admitted that she had to overcome a steep learning curve. “I looked back after my first couple years and I had only shown two artists of color in that whole time,” she said in a recent interview, referring to a time about three years ago when she realized that she had been playing into a closed value system with which she didn’t agree. So she started seeking out artists of color who were doing work that fit in her space, as well as scholars such as Duane Deterville to do lectures. “There’s no blame [on other galleries],” she said. “But if you’re actually interested in showing work that’s reflective of a larger picture, then, in my mind, you have to [address] that narrow focus that I think the art world tends to channel people into.”
In July, the Malidoma Collective will be doing a residency at Krowswork in which Moorhead is giving the collective members free rein to curate the space how they see fit. The show will include artwork from their own collective, as well as a number of healing art workshops. Moorhead said she is trying to further shift away from the typical system of curating — a system that can often silence voices of color instead of amplifying them. “I have this tiny little corner of the world that I call Krowswork, and it happens to be in Oakland at a very critical moment of protecting what I see as the most interesting thing about Oakland, which is its diversity and its potential — through that diversity — to lead.”
Conrad M. Meyers II, president of the board of directors of Art Murmur, said he’s well aware of the issue of underrepresentation for Black artists and artists of color in Oakland. It’s often been a topic of conversation among Art Murmur members, he said. But Meyers, who is also director of Aggregate Space Gallery in Oakland, a space that focuses on experimental video work and large scale sculpture, said he was sad to admit that since it opened in 2010, Aggregate has only had one solo show by a Black artist (Christopher Burch in 2013). Meyers said he’s been trying to seek out artists of color to show in his space, but has had a difficult time finding ones who make the type of work that his gallery is geared toward — adding that many gallerists he’s worked with have expressed the same struggle. He thinks that part of the problem is that he mostly collaborates with recent graduates of CCA, San Francisco Art Institute, and Mills College — all of which are mostly white institutions. Plus, artists often have to expend significant amounts money to create their works, which then almost never sell.
So, rather than shifting his focus like Moorhead, he recently turned his gallery into a nonprofit in hopes of acquiring funding that will allow him to reach outside of his current art community, and to offer money to artists who want to do video work or large-scale sculpture and don’t have the funds. However, Meyers said it can be a struggle to remain true to one’s aesthetic while also reflecting Oakland’s diversity. “With anything with race, how do you reach that without making it feel forced or inaccurate?” he said. “You do your best to open those conversations.”
During the past year, Black writer and poet Carrie Kholi posted numerous selfies on Instagram with the hashtag “#BlackGirlGradSchool.” It was her last year in graduate school at Rutgers University, and she finished writing her dissertation while living in Oakland. Her doctoral thesis looks at how works by Black authors such as Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, and Toni Cade Bambara, were received by critics and then examines those critiques for implicit bias. Kholi — much like Samella Lewis in her introduction to Black Artists on Art — explores the idea that, even if we don’t realize it, works of art and other cultural products are often judged against a standard that privileges some groups over others.
The concept of implicit bias is also one that Moorhead felt she needed to make a conscious effort to work against at Krowswork. It also could explain the uneasiness that many Black artists feel when they walk into white-owned galleries. And, it could encompass what Lewis and Parham are aiming to combat with the inclusivity of their Black Artists on Art project. “Oakland seems like such an open place, but there’s clearly that trace of implicit bias and I think that it comes from ideas of power and who gets to say that your art is necessary,” Kholi said.
Another example of implicit bias in the art world is when curators judge an artist’s capability by his or her résumé rather than the work. Despite the fact that Kholi had never had a showing in a gallery before, Anyka Barber, the director of Betti Ono Gallery in downtown Oakland, reached out to Kholi and another queer, female artist of color to create a show for the gallery’s fourth anniversary last year. In an interview, Barber pointed out that most galleries decide who they want to show based on credentials — like past shows, appearances in publications, and academic degrees. But those accomplishments can be more easily achieved if one comes from a higher level of socioeconomic privilege. “My intention with Betti Ono is to really smash that idea and put power in places where it didn’t exist in the same way,” she said.
Indeed, over the past five years, Barber has put her all into creating a space in which the perspectives of marginalized people are at the fore — mainly because she doesn’t see enough venues that make that their focus. “People have a right to choose, it really depends on what value systems the people who are leading spaces are working from, and I’m saying we get to create our own model of value at Betti Ono, and it’s very intentional to create something other than what has already been set up as the status quo because a lot of people are being overlooked with that system,” she said.
Betti Ono is located on Telegraph Avenue and 14th Street in a building that lines Frank Ogawa Plaza — or, as Barber calls it, “Oscar Grant Plaza.” For Barber, it’s crucial to have a space like Betti Ono where it is — at the center of the city. However, like most galleries in Oakland, there’s no telling how long it will be able to remain. “Displacement via gentrification, displacement via city laws, ordinances, or policies, or whatever’s happening economically in this city, is all a threat to arts and culture institutions that are particularly focused on serving an audience that’s not held up by the status quo,” said Barber.
Barber is currently negotiating her lease with the city, which owns the building. She hopes to acquire a long-term contract, but it’s unclear whether she will be able to do so. Barber believes that policymakers need to step up and make sure that spaces like hers are able to remain in Oakland, especially in accessible places. If galleries are forced to compete in the marketplace against tech businesses with rent prices soaring out of control, they won’t be able to stay open. “Should I be paying the same rate as a company like that when I’m a community-centered, small, micro-business that’s arts focused, that’s bringing value to the city in a particular way?” she asked. “Should those things be equal? Is that fair? Is that right? Is that equitable? Probably not.”
Pamela Mays McDonald, a seasoned arts advocate who serves on the Alameda County Arts Commission and is the chair of external relations for Oakland Art Murmur, has been examining development plans in areas around clusters of galleries in Oakland. In a recent interview, she described Oakland’s art galleries as the city’s method of luring developers. “You’re being put there as a temporary placeholder — to fix up a place so that developers will be interested,” she said. She also pointed out that the city has offered nothing in terms of security for cultural centers amid rising rents, so the chances of being able to preserve that culture are low.
Meyers pointed out that, although it may seem as if a gallery is doing well, the vast majority of galleries in Oakland aren’t breaking even financially. Both he and McDonald are sure that, as property values rise, Oakland’s artistic culture will dwindle and disperse — unless there’s a conscious effort to preserve it. And McDonald thinks that Black-owned spaces will likely be the first to go. “Look at Black gallery owners, look at Trevor, look at Joyce Gordon, look at Anyka Barber,” she said. “These will be the canaries in a coalmine for the art scene in Oakland.”
As Oakland continues to boom, many fear that the culture and history of the place will gradually get erased. In a recent interview, Joyce Gordon and Eric Murphy, who run Joyce Gordon Gallery on Broadway and 14th Street, expressed frustration with the fact that as Oakland garners more and more attention for its new “diverse” arts scene, little credit goes to galleries like hers that preceded the formation of Art Murmur. “For some reason, when people talk about the galleries, they always kind of miss the Black galleries,” said Gordon. “All of the conversation I’ve heard about the art that’s going on in Oakland and how it’s really growing and this and that — that’s all based on white galleries, because there have been Black galleries here all the time. We just have not had a spokesperson.”
Her gallery opened in 2003, but she pointed out that long before hers, there was Samuel’s Gallery (which was open for eighteen years before it closed in 2003) and Thelma Harris, which has been open for 25 years, the last 23 of which have been on College Avenue in Rockridge. They’ve both shown internationally renowned artists, and yet rarely have received credit locally.
Still, Thelma Harris represents a success story for spaces that focus on Black artists. When she opened the gallery in 1990, she did so because she knew of nowhere to buy artwork by African-American artists. Over the years, Harris and her husband have become internationally known as a resource for African-American art. Many of the artists that they started collecting early on are now being collected by museums, in part because of all the work they did to promote them throughout the years. “We didn’t think we were making history — we still don’t,” said Terry Harris. “But at the same time, you are making history and you are exposing and you are setting aside and creating value.” That’s why projects such as Black Artists on Art: The Legacy Exhibit are so important, Thelma and Terry Harris said. These projects not only contribute to cultural memory, but also provide a sense of legitimacy to those who require it.
The closing of the Black Artists on Art exhibit on April 17 was only the end of the beginning. The night marked the release of another important aspect of the project: the online submission form. Although it’s simply a web page requesting a bio and each creator’s “perspective on art as an artist of the African diaspora,” it’s a crucial step in the project because it brings art by Black artists to the next level of accessibility. Through the online form, artists can submit images of their work along with personal information that will act as a submission to the book.
In early 2016, the accepted submissions will be available on the Black Artists on Art website (BlackArtistsonArt.com) in a database that will be searchable by artist, type of art, specific art piece, and location. It will also serve as a resource for local curators who want to find artists outside of their immediate community doing a specific type of work. In that way, Lewis and Parham hope that the website will help to increase the visibility of Black artists in some of the higher profile galleries in town. “I think it would be almost laughable in another year if we keep doing what we’re doing for someone to say, ‘Well, I would love to show more Black artists but I just can’t find them,'” said Parham, “because somebody would easily say — just like they told the artists who submitted to us — well then you need to go down to [Oakstop] because they’re doing something around that.”
Another advantage of the database is that it’s not limited to Oakland. Over the long term, Lewis and Parham would like the Black Artists on Art exhibit to travel around the country, and then the world. Ideally, only the legacy pieces by artists who were in the original two books will travel with the show. The other artists displayed in each show will be curated through submissions to the database, filtered by location, depending on where the exhibit travels. That way, the show will continue working toward increased local representation wherever it goes, and offer more artists the opportunity to show with historic works.
Since May 27, the show has been at the Marin Community Foundation in Novato, where it will stay until September 25. Then, it will move to the Petaluma Arts Center for a show from October 10 until November 22. Parham and Lewis hope to have the third volume of Black Artists on Art published by early 2016. Although they have yet to decide on a publisher, the duo is determined to ensure that the books will cheap, and they hope to get them into schools. In that way, they hope to eventually overcome the implicit bias rooted in white-centric art history.
As Samella Lewis wrote in the original Black Artists on Art with eloquent sass and admirable simplicity, “It is long past time for us to fully realize that artists are really different from each other — just as people are different from each other. One might venture to say that artists are people.”Correction: The original version of this article did not include the correct full name of Pamela Mays McDonald.